Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down Michigan State's win over Minnesota on Saturday night.
Minneapolis — In the days following Michigan State’s win over Michigan last week, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio emphasized that his team was going to be judged by how it followed that win up.
The Spartans had done well at that under Dantonio, winning eight of 10 games the week after playing their rivals, and had a chance to improve on that Saturday night against Minnesota. And improve on it is just what No. 21 Michigan State did, jumping on Minnesota early, then withstanding a late rally to knock off the Gophers, 30-27, at TCF Bank Stadium.
It was exactly the sort of follow-up Dantonio was hoping for from his team.
“I’d say 10 out of 10 in terms of our approach to this football game,” Dantonio said. “We knew we would have some adversity, and that we’d have to play through it, and come in ready to play. We fumbled the (second) play, fumbled our first punt, but we responded. We came in and threw an interception but responded.
“There were a lot of positives tonight. You have to take these games like a prize fight and go round-for-round with these teams. There are some great teams in this conference, well-coached teams in this conference, and they play extremely hard in this conference.”
Michigan State (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) had to do so on another miserable night, battling rain and wind from the opening kick, which was delayed 34 minutes because of lightning in the area. Both teams had trouble early, fumbling twice each in the first eight minutes.
But the Spartans settled down behind one of their best running games of the season. Junior LJ Scott ran for a career-high 194 yards on 25 carries, adding a pair of touchdowns while Madre London added 74 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown as the Spartans ran for 245 yards, a 28-yard loss on an early botched punt snap limiting the final total. Scott had touchdown runs of 24 and 6 yards while London’s 3-yard run came after Michigan State recovered a fumble at the Minnesota 8.
“It was great getting back out there with the guys after missing last week,” said Scott, who did not play against Michigan because of an injury. “I have to give the credit to the O-line for creating holes and making things happen out front.”
The early mishaps allowed Minnesota to take a 3-0 lead on a 25-yard field goal from Emmitt Carpenter but the Spartans answered with a 42-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin — the first of three field goals for the game for the redshirt freshman — to tie the score. Michigan State then turned the tide quickly as Minnesota fumbled on the next drive with Kenny Willekes recovering at the Gophers’ 8. London scored on a 3-yard run to put the Spartans ahead 10-3 with 6:25 left in the first quarter.
The turnovers kept coming in the first quarter, this time after Michigan State forced a Minnesota punt and took over at its 23. On first down, Brian Lewerke was intercepted by Minnesota’s Duke McGhee. The Gophers couldn’t get a first down but did get a 47-yard field goal from Carpenter to cut the Michigan State lead to 10-6 with 2:34 left in the quarter.
The Spartans came right back as Scott plowed his way through the Gophers defense, capping a six-play drive with his 24-yard touchdown run to put Michigan State ahead 17-6 with 14:10 left in the second quarter.
I think last week going through all that with the rain definitely helped,” Lewerke said. “After the first fumbled snap we had I just focused more on getting my hands up in there and making sure I wasn’t pulling out too early. As the game went on it kind of stopped raining and was just kind of a drizzle so it wasn’t too bad.”
Michigan State opened the second half by pushing its lead to 20-6 on a 35-yard field goal from Coghlin with 10:45 to play in the third quarter. Scott had a 33-yard run on the drive and became the first Michigan State back to go over the 100-yard mark in a game this season.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio on the win over Minnesota Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
The Spartans then chewed up the bulk of the clock in the third quarter with a 16-play, 73-yard drive that lasted 9:13. It ended with a 25-yard field goal from Coghlin that extended the lead to 23-6 with 15 seconds left in the quarter.
Scott added his 6-yard TD run with 10:15 to play in the game, however, Minnesota (3-3, 0-3) didn’t go quietly, getting three fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Demry Croft to Tyler Johnson. Michigan State’s Cody White finally put the game away by recovering an onside kick and Michigan State knelt on the ball to end the game. Croft finished 11-for-20 for 163 yards while Johnson had eight catches for 106 yards.
“It was really a tale of two halves on both sides of the ball,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “Defensively, we played really well in the first half. Offensively, not so good. Second half was different. Defensively, we did not play well and offensively, we fought and continued to come back.
“I am proud of their fight. We finished on the offensive side, did not finish on the defensive side. The word ‘finish’ is floating somewhere around there this week. We are making strides.”
Michigan State now heads home to take on Indiana at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday for Homecoming in a game televised by ABC. A win means the Spartans would be bowl-eligible.
“It’s obviously an incredible feeling,” said Willekes, who recorded his third sack of the season. “Going 3-9 last year did not sit well. We made it a personal goal in the offseason to get better and not let that happen again. So sitting at 5-1 through six games is incredible.”
Dantonio said he had confidence his team could quickly regain its winning ways. However, he also understands there’s a long way to go.
“We’re at the halfway point right now,” he said. “What we do now, between now and the end of the season, will sort of define us and we understand that. But it’s good to be 5-1. The only way to go is up and everyone is excited.”